A tale of two horrors

The Virginia Tech massacre made America shudder. But will it awaken us to the nightmare of suffering in Iraq?

Published April 24, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

It is every parent's worst nightmare. Your child is at school, going about his or her business, doing the ordinary, everyday things that are woven into your heart. Then someone who lives in an invisible universe of hatred suddenly appears and starts shooting. And the bullet that ends your child's life ends yours too. You may live on. But your old life, the life in which the world, or God, or whatever you stand on, seemed to be on your side -- that world no longer exists.

The Talmud says those who save one life save the world. Four hundred years ago, John Donne said the same thing, in reverse. "No man is an island, entire of itself ... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind." We like to think that we embrace these teachings, with the similar teachings of Jesus Christ and Mohammed and the Buddha, with the compassion for human suffering that lies at the core of every great religion.

But most of the time, we don't. In the age of universal media, it's impossible. In the modern world, death is at once too ubiquitous and too distant. The morning paper brings us dozens of deaths, each of which ends a miraculous human life, each of which diminishes us all. And we feel nothing. There are simply too many of them.

But there are deeper reasons. Our society pushes death offstage. Even when those close to us die, they usually do so in a rationalized, bureaucratic hospital setting which shrink-wraps death. The inexplicable mystery becomes as ordinary as a corporate newsletter from beyond.

It isn't just our society as a whole that is responsible for this. We demand it. Death is the great unthought, the face we don't want to see. As the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote in "The Denial of Death," denying death is wired into humans. Our very personalities, our religion, our sense of the heroic -- all, Becker argued, are a response to our fundamental terror at our finitude.

Certain public events, however, can shock us into a confrontation with death. The Virginia Tech massacre, in its metaphysical obscenity, forced us to take notice. With our defenses momentarily torn down, the subterranean river of simple fellow feeling flowed to the surface: sorrow for the young lives lost, admiration for the teacher who saved his students' lives at the cost of his own, compassion for the victims' families.

As humans do, we try to ensure that this awful spectacle of death was not for nothing. Hence our national soul-searching and debate. How could this happen? Is our society somehow to blame? Our values? Our gun laws? What could we have done differently to save this tortured soul?

But half a world away, similar horrors are happening every day -- horrors, unlike Seung-Hui Cho's slaughter, for which America bears direct responsibility. And we feel nothing.

On Sunday afternoon, 23 Iraqis were pulled out of their buses outside Mosul as they were on their way home from work, stood up against a wall, and shot to death. Their crime belonged to the Yezidis, a religious sect. The story appeared on page A-6 of the New York Times.

In Iraq, where dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people are brutally murdered every day, the Virginia Tech horror would be a respite. Yet we pay no attention. We put them in a little closed box marked "casualties of war."

The Iraq war is a tragic demonstration of one of the oldest, saddest truths in history: Victims often become executioners. Bloodshed and tragedy all too often lead not to wisdom and compassion but to more bloodshed and tragedy. The sadness and sickness in America's soul today is not just that we launched an unjustified war, and betrayed the humanity of the Iraqis we said we wanted to help, but that we betrayed our own humanity -- and the memory of those who died on Sept. 11.

The nightmare that is Iraq was born in the nightmare that was 9/11. A self-righteous president learned all the wrong lessons from that national tragedy. He truly believed he was honoring the dead and preventing another atrocity. But by launching an unjustified war, one that predictably went terribly wrong, he proved that he understood nothing about what war is -- and, ultimately, about what death is.

Bush's America is righteous. Baptized in the blood of the 9/11 victims, it has been born again. In its sanctity, it can do anything. This is an old story. Before they go to war, nations always insist that they are blameless victims. It is essential that a nation's people be convinced that God and right are on their side and that the enemy is evil and monstrous. The powerful drugs of patriotism and moral supremacy are necessary to sell the upcoming horror show.

Bush believed after 9/11 that he was called by God to fight a great war against Islamist evil. But Iraq is just the latest war to show that those who decide to play God can create not heaven on earth, but hell.

For years, America had believed that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of powerful weapons. But we put up with Saddam, even worked with him, correctly deeming that the risks of invading Iraq were much greater than the risk that Saddam would use those supposed weapons against us. As we know, Bush was thinking about attacking Iraq from the moment he took office, but 9/11 produced a kind of religious conversion in him and his administration. As Ron Suskind showed in his devastating portrait of the Bush administration, "The One Percent Doctrine," 9/11 led Dick Cheney to embrace the radical idea that if there was even a 1 percent chance that an Islamist enemy could get its hands on weapons of mass destruction, we had to attack. And it didn't matter who we attacked, or what the rationale was. "It's not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence," Cheney said. "It's about our response."

God, Aristotle's unmoved mover, couldn't have said it better himself. After 9/11, the Bush administration embraced a quasi- theological mindset. America was not only always right but also impervious to harm -- because in the Christian-patriotic world that Bush inhabits, those who are right cannot fail.

This messianic conviction still drives Bush today -- which is why his presidency, in which all doubts are banished and reality itself is shut out, is beginning more and more to resemble that of a religious fanatic. But it also sheds light on a strange and disturbing parallel between Bush's invasion of Iraq, justified as a preventive attack to prevent more 9/11s, and the Virginia Tech killings.

In the media's voluminous coverage of the murders, one dark question appears to have remained unasked: Are there ever circumstances under which it is justifiable to preemptively murder someone? If there was ever a murderer whose troubled soul was laid bare for all to see long before he snapped, it was Seung-Hui Cho. And it is hard not to fantasize about some scenario in which some Cassandra-like psychiatrist, or teacher, or family member, or classmate, killed him before he killed someone else.

In the Old West, and in outlaw societies, such preventive murders were and are not unheard of. But nations governed by law reject the idea, for an obvious reason: It is impossible to be certain that you're right. And when you're setting out to kill someone who hasn't done anything yet, being wrong is not an option.

But as we have seen, for Bush, 9/11 removed the constraints of law and logic. He was now acting in the name of God and the flag, and those truths were bigger than logic -- Cheney's "analysis" and "evidence" -- or law. He didn't need the law to take out Saddam. He had a mandate to do so. In Bush's eyes, then and now, invading Iraq was like killing Cho before he started his killing spree.

If Bush had been right that Saddam was planning to attack America -- although there is actually no way we would ever have known that he was -- invading Iraq might have been justifiable homicide. But he was wrong.

And so we are not the heroes in this story -- we are the murderers. Bush's war has created a Virginia Tech nightmare that never stops. To the Iraqis who have seen their houses destroyed, their children blown apart, and their country destroyed, the day America came was the day a whole army of Seung-Hui Chos walked through the door.

Of course I am not literally equating America, or Bush, with the deeply disturbed young man who killed 32 people. The Bush administration did not set out to intentionally cause the death of 650,000 Iraqis. In their eyes, their intentions were good. But those intentions are meaningless. Because even arrogant fools can have good intentions.

For the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, all that matters is that before we invaded, even if their lives were oppressed, impoverished and controlled by a brutal dictator, they could still live. Now they can't. Their friends, their families, their entire country, are dying before their eyes. To be sure, the butchery is being done by Iraqis themselves and a few foreigners, not -- with some horrible exceptions -- by Americans. But America is responsible because America started the war that opened the gates of hell. When you start a war, you have no idea where it will end. You have to be sure it's worth the risk.

America is responsible for the Iraq nightmare. But this truth must be repressed. It does not fit our official narrative. No state wants to be told that it is the national equivalent of Seung-Hui Cho. And so the Bush administration, which now has the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on its hands as well as that of more than 3,300 Americans, clings to its Big Lie, insisting that the dreadful ongoing slaughter in Iraq proves that we were right to invade in the first place.

This is a profound perversion of logic and morality. Fortunately, fewer and fewer Americans believe it. But the mere fact that it is our official governmental narrative about a great human-rights catastrophe, one we set in motion, brings shame upon our country.

Bush does not represent the American spirit, thank God. But his leadership has shrunk our national soul. Bush is a devout Christian, but there is no charity, no spiritual generosity, in his vision. Our flag, under which he struts, once stood for an America bigger than itself. Bush's flag stands for an America that arrogates all the humanity and virtue in the world. It is a profoundly unreligious flag.

Which brings us back to individuals killed on Sept. 11, and in Virginia, and on the road from Mosul. What we owe them is what we owe every human being who was passed: the best of ourselves. We owe them remembrance, and respect, and clear thinking, and a resolution to make the world a better place. We owe them, in a word, our humanity.

The tragedy of America's response to 9/11 is that it did not reflect the best of America. The moral obscenity of the Iraq war is not only that it betrayed the Iraqi people, who never harmed us. It is that it betrayed the very people in whose name it was launched. It betrayed us all.

There is a way back to the humanity we have lost. We can find it in our compassionate response to the Virginia Tech tragedy, our prayers that solace will somehow come to those who have lost everything. We can find it by paying attention to an entire nation that is suffering because of a war we needlessly started. We can find it by accepting that we now owe the Iraqis everything, and that our hearts and pocketbooks must be theirs for our lifetime.

And we can find it by resolving to never again listen to leaders who believe that American blood is worth more than that of others, and who in the name of God and right lead us into righteous wars. Because there may be necessary wars, but there are no righteous ones. Because Donne was right, and every man's death diminishes us all. Because the Bible is right, and we must not kill. And those who would do good by waging war often end up becoming the very thing they feared: killers.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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